than a Backyard
on a Small Island
Chris Cozier and Claire Tancons
In the following interview from December 2011, artist, critic, curator, and Alice Yard co-founder Christopher Cozier shares his insights about contemporary art practice in Trinidad and Tobago and the Caribbean with curator Claire Tancons. An artist collective recently incorporated as a non-profit organization under the laws of Trinidad and Tobago, Alice Yard formed in 2006 around the backyard of a downtown Port of Spain house, once home to the great-grandmother of Alice Yard co-founder and architect Sean Leonard. At Alice Yard, Leonard and Cozier, along with its other co-founders, writer Nicholas Laughlin and musician Sheldon Holder, run artistic, literary, and music programs and, since building a small exhibition space in 2007, have mounted exhibitions and screened films, growing their network of creative collaborators on site and online along the way. More than an exhibition space, Alice Yard is a platform for creative practice and critical dialogue about the arts that builds upon the various languages and methodologies of its collaborators’ disciplines. Continuing an ongoing discussion between Cozier and Tancons initiated in 2004, this conversation circumscribes the Caribbean as a critical space, addressing issues pertinent to artist-run spaces in general and to the small insular setting of Trinidad and Tobago in particular.
Claire Tancons – When we last spoke in Port of Spain in early 2010, you were considering converting Alice Yard from an art collective into a non-profit arts organization in order to seek funding from international agencies.1 This year, in 2011, the Global Africa Project at the Museum of Art and Design (MAD) presented for the first time in New York a sample of Alice Yard’s creative processes and practices. Given these recent developments and the fact that Alice Yard just celebrated its fifth anniversary, do you feel that institutionalizing tendencies are ineluctably setting in? Do you welcome or wish to avoid these tendencies, and, if so, how?
Christopher Cozier – Alice Yard is very much a response to local institutional deficits. There is no interest and support here for experimental investigative contemporary work. This interest in initiating, hosting, or simply taking seriously projects at their start-up or development stages has now expanded beyond the island to artists living in other places—many with Caribbean connections or interests—who began to ask similar questions and wanted to visit the Yard and engage its processes.
We are a small entity so when funders look at us they have to appreciate our independence, our flexibility, and our openness, all of which allows us to respond to how creative people would like to use the space and collaborate in diverse ways. In this sense, Alice Yard is not just a space, but a relationship. Currently a lot of young music bands rehearse there; we do readings by new and established writers and poets; artists and designers meet there or give talks or develop works together. For us, becoming a not-for-profit is very much about building capacity, our capacity to be able to respond in ways that are commensurate with the questions asked of us. At their simplest, these questions take the form of an artist approaching us with an idea we would like to help develop further. A lot of personal financial resources and time have gone into this process so far. It has been very difficult, but enjoyable when something critically interesting occurs, or someone from our audience and community says, “that was fun,” or “now I understand why you are doing this,” or just “thanks” and “keep going.”
Our presence in Global Caribbean (2009–10) at the Haitian Cultural Center, Miami, and other locations, as well as in the Global Africa Project at MAD in New York is an acknowledgment, but it also challenges our capacity and sense of what we are about. We are still thinking this through along with our networks.
Tancons – That’s interesting because arts funders themselves acknowledge that the non-profit model is in crisis and foundations’ granting capabilities have been steadily downsizing. Speaking for the United States at least, some of the most progressive foundations are encouraging arts organizations and artist collectives to think outside of the box in terms of their funding revenue. There is nothing really new here, but I wonder how you think about sustainably financing Alice Yard outside of the grant-making circuit and using your own resources?
Cozier – We are constantly trying to resolve these questions as we encounter them. Over time we would prefer to be acknowledged and engaged for what we are doing rather than just having credibility simply through being a funded entity. We seek, also, to open a debate about the value of experimental investigative work. We are trying to build a community and a dialogue about imagining in a place such as this. Searching for ways to create meaningfully in what, from our perspective, have become very aggressive, shrewd, utilitarian, and mercantile-driven Caribbean societies is quite a challenge. Compared to other neighbouring Caribbean countries, Trinidad is a relatively wealthy country with oil and natural gas reserves, yet too often the local community and the state are more than happy to leave it to international agencies to fill the gap in funding for arts and culture—all of which I find deeply ironic in a country that once sought to assert its independence from Britain and to find its own voice while being so close to the United States.
Tancons – Can you tell us more about the institutional deficit in the arts in Trinidad? Perhaps you can give us a quick genealogical recap of artist-led initiatives that preceded Alice Yard and tell us how Alice Yard distinguishes itself from them? I am thinking about Contemporary Caribbean Arts (CCA7) (1997–2007) of which you were a founding member and at which I was briefly a curator-in-residence in 2004. Also, could you speak about the more recent citywide art project known as Galvanize from 2006?2
Cozier – Well, on the one hand we have a local art market through which a lot of money flows towards traditional and established art forms such as painting. On the other hand, there is a lack of funding and support for experimental and critical art practices from a younger generation of artists who engage Alice Yard. This younger generation—born in the late 1970s and early 1980s—circulates quite a lot internationally, but remains invisible at home as there are no serious collectors here and only a dysfunctional, underfunded museum, the National Museum of Trinidad and Tobago.
CCA7 was founded in 1997 to address and respond to contemporary art practice in Trinidad. Interesting stuff started to emerge in the field of contemporary art in Trinidad during the early 1980s but remained unsupported and misunderstood until the 1990s when a new generation of artists, including myself, began to show work internationally but continued to be rejected or ignored by the local market and institutions. There is a myth that contemporary art practice in Trinidad began with CCA7 or the people it imported, but it really began with the dialogues of the early 1980s around the work of people like Peter Minshall, Johnny Stollmeyer, Wendy Nanan, and Francesco Cabral, who came before. This collectively created the rationale for CCA7. In 2000, CCA7 became a large facility, with two galleries and thirteen residency studios, and was courted by various funding agencies like the Canada Council for the Arts, the Reed Foundation, the Prince Claus Fund, and networks like the Triangle Art Trust. But there was still very little local support and CCA7 eventually became both politically fraught—with resentment from local art advocates and the government about the centre’s international attention—and financially challenged with very high overhead and scant resources left for actual projects. In some ways, the building became the project, and CCA7 began to fall short of its original purpose to support contemporary art practice in Trinidad. In the long term, CCA7 simply provided an entry point for foreign artists with solid connections to the international art market but did little to develop the visibility, critical understanding, and access to that international art world economy for the local artists in whose name it was developed. The ultimate demise of CCA7 in 2007 provided a lesson in local developmental politics and seriously questioned the ongoing tendency in the postcolonial Caribbean to emulate metropolitan organizational models to gain visibility and legitimacy even when they may not be adaptable to the local context and become non-functional and burdensome. CCA7 may be a good case study in how globalization casts a wide net while failing to seriously alter very old social and economic relations—paradigms that we know all too well in the Caribbean. I am of course referring here to the “other side” of capitalism and modernity otherwise known as colonialism and its ongoing aftershocks.
Galvanize was an attempt, initiated by a younger artist, Mario Lewis, to get back to building our context—i.e., to support our artists and create a dialogue and understanding, locally, of contemporary art practice and also to raise the low expectations international audiences might have of art from the Caribbean, to move ahead with the positive legacy of CCA7 in fostering international exchange among artists, and to take creative practice out of the building and into the public domain. The local art community responded to Lewis’s proposition to work together and seek new places to show our work and win the public back. For example, much of the scheduling of the myriad events and projects that took place in the street and in non-art-spaces, as well as the blogging of critical conversation that drove Galvanize, was assembled and edited by Nicholas Laughlin (writer and Alice Yard co-founder) in collaboration with people like myself and many others. Interestingly, Alice Yard was first used as a space to show a video installation by Jaime Lee Loy, assisted by Marlon Griffith and Nikolai Noel, who went on to form the artistic collective the Collaborative Frog. So, a series of networks and dialogues began to take shape, all based on the lessons learned through our experience with CCA7, which later developed into what would become Alice Yard. In some ways, we have actually returned to where we were before CCA7, as the need to support and promote contemporary art practices at home and abroad remains, but in a more informed and pragmatic way.
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About the Authors
Christopher Cozier is an artist, writer, and curator living and working in Trinidad. His artwork has been exhibited at the 7th Havana Biennial, the Brooklyn Museum, the Stenersen Museum (Oslo), the Chicago Cultural Center, the Trienal Poli/Gráfica de San Juan: América Latina y el Caribe, the Biennial of Cuenca, Real Art Ways (Hartford), and TATE Liverpool. With architect Sean Leonard, writer and editor Nicholas Laughlin, and musician Sheldon Holder, Cozier co-directs Alice Yard, at once a physical space, a collaborative network, and an ongoing conversation about contemporary art and creativity in the Caribbean.
Claire Tancons is a curator, writer, and researcher whose work focuses on Carnival, public ceremonial culture, and protest movements. She was the associate curator for Prospect.1 and Contemporary Arts Center, both in New Orleans (2007–09), a curator for the 7th Gwangju Biennale (2008), a guest curator for CAPE09 (2009), and is the currently the curatorial director for the Harlem Biennale. She splits her time between New Orleans and New York.